Repenting of the Failure of Parish-Based Catechesis: Time for An Old Idea

It was shocking what she didn't know, especially because St. Charles was going to let her receive First Communion in this state of unknowing. She didn't know what Original Sin is. She didn't know the difference between a mortal and venial sin or of what an examination of conscience should consist. She didn't know what grace is, or what the Trinity is, or what we mean by the Holy Eucharist. As a result of all this unknowing, Caitlin hated going to Church and thought the religious education classes she associated with the Church were boring and stupid.

So I told Caitlin's mother that I would meet with her and her daughter for an hour every Saturday for the next three months. We started with, "Who made you?" and "What can we know about God from the world?" and then, "Why did God make you?" and "How does God talk to you?" and we'll be moving on according to the brilliant and sturdy structure of the Baltimore Catechism. Lord knows, by the time we're done, this could probably earn the little girl an honorary doctorate from the sorry, intellectual vacuum that is catechesis in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

We have a problem in the Church in the U.S. We need to suppress the impulse to defend the indefensible, because we don't want to hurt the feelings of the lovely people who have been pulled in to teach the Faith in all our parishes. They are lovely, and God will bless them for their sacrifices. But, in my experience, nice doesn't mean good teaching and we urgently need some good teaching.

Teaching is an art. It is a craft. It can be a profession. It is something people go to universities to learn how to do. There are two key aspects to being an effective teacher. The first is to know your subject. The second is to know how to communicate, translate, and "make enthralling," your subject.

Most parish DREs find their religious education teachers from the rolls of the parents who have kids in the programs. Over and over through my years in the "corporate Church," I encountered people teaching the Faith who had no pedagogical training and little if any theology. The various dioceses count heavily on their one- or two-day religious education congresses to get their catechists up to speed, but it is an absurd expectation. You can't make theologians and educators out of people in a day. Typically, the highlight of these conferences for the attendees is the exhibit hall where they swoop all over booths of Catholic publishers and purveyors of holy hardware, looking frantically for tools that they can use in their classes. Talk about setting people up for failure!

The sad reality of parish-based catechesis in most places is that it's boring, lightweight, irrelevant drivel for the kids, and frustration and embarrassment for the catechists.

First Proposal: Recommit to Content and Rigor

I got into teaching RCIA because I had two converts who were in graduate programs in engineering and I couldn't find a parish program that wasn't insultingly banal. I didn't want us to lose them because what they found in the Church was so much dumber than what they found at UCLA. I sat in on RCIA classes at three different local parishes before I despaired of finding a good program and decided to teach them myself.

You think I'm kidding about how dumb these parish programs are? I have seen sessions that SNL would reject as being too ridiculous. Oh, the humanity!

Not long ago, my husband and I attended a mandatory two-hour session at a local parish, for parents with new babies and their corresponding godparents-to-be. There were about fifty of us in the hall and the main miracle of the evening was that none of us left the Church for another religion during the course of the evening. It was dreadful! Instead of helping us understand and value the glorious baptismal ritual, the three "team leaders" wasted our time asking us to decorate little white cloth dresses with colors and pictures that made us think of God. They told stupid stories about when their babies were born and embarrassing moments they had seen at baptisms. There was a long, awful period in which every pregnant couple got to explain the name they had for their baby. Almost none had chosen a patron saint's name. And why would they? No one on the "team" suggested it as a good idea!

The evening was a well-intentioned, dumbed down, idiotic mess that was a waste for everyone who had crawled out of their offices and homes and missed dinner. I hated how the much-needed opportunity to prepare these parents and god-parents was squandered. We don't have time for this!

I get that the Baltimore Catechism by itself isn't enough. But it doesn't follow that it isn't very good. Because it is -- especially for children who need to be sponging up and storing as many concepts as we can give them as resources for their future lives. What is infuriating in so many of these terribly banal parish programs is that they may say little truths, but their whole subtext is a giant lie. The lie is that the Catholic Faith, that Christianity, is a boring, irrelevant unreasoned cacophony of old dogmas and rituals. No! Our Faith is smart! There's more to it than any of us can ever fully learn morally, spiritually, intellectually, and liturgically. There's a ton that we need to memorize so as to ruminate over—psalms and lists and parables and turns of phrase and principles.

12/2/2022 9:05:40 PM
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